Stacey Shiflett, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Dundalk, made a vow to fight the $500 fine issued by Baltimore County for holding church services on May 24.
Shiflett held a press conference in the courtyard in front of the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse in Towson on June 12, saying that his church was fined specifically for holding a special worship service on May 24, the day before Memorial Day. He was joined at the press conference by State Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, R-6, Del. Ric Metzgar, R-6, and US Rep. Andy Harris, R-1.
“That citation was an offensive gesture that dishonored the sacrifice of our fallen heroes that died fighting so that among other things, we could go to church whenever we wanted to, and worship God however we choose,” Shiflett said.
Shiflett said during his press conference that he made the decision “after much prayer and with deep Bible-based conviction” to reopen the doors to Calvary Baptist Church on May 17. On May 18, he received a cease and desist order from the Baltimore County Health Department. Calvary Baptist Church held an evening service on May 20, where Shiflett tore up the order. He could be seen on the service’s livestream tearing the letter.
The fine was issued on May 28 by the Baltimore County Department of
“If the citizens of Baltimore were permitted to take risks associated with going to the grocery store, or the hardware store, or the liquor store or the marijuana dispensary, how could they be strictly forbidden to assume any risks in attending church services with their families,” Shiflett said. “The county’s position is completely unreasonable that worshipping in groups of more than 10 is deadly, but shopping with hundreds of people is perfectly safe.”
Harris spoke at the podium and said that restrictions issued in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic are not being issued uniformly. He used the recent Black Lives Matter protests that took place around the state recently as an example. Thousands of people have gathered at some of these protests, which is covered under the First Amendment, Harris said. No fines, threats of consequence or warnings have been issued. A protest took place in the same location as the press conference in Towson on June 8.
“It is incorrect to say that the courts have held that discrimination against a place of worship in enforcing lockdown orders is legal,” Harris said.
When asked if Calvary Baptist Church has considered appealing the fine, Harris said that going up against the government in America can be a “one-sided fight.”
“What you’re asking is whether or not this church should have to pay the expense of lawyers for what is on its face clearly an unconstitutional action by the county,” Harris said. “Every American should be afraid of their county coming after them, or the state or the federal government.”
“That’s what’s happening in this case. The county is wielding authority that they don’t have in hoping, I guess, that the pastor says it will cost more to defend against this $500 fine. If this has to go to the US Supreme Court, I will back them at every step of the way.”
Harris sent a letter to Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. dated June 10, saying that while the cease and desist letter pointed out that the courts have supported restrictions on religious practices in many cases, that has only been true when religious institutions weren’t singled out for different and more restrictive treatment than other public gatherings. The letter pointed out that US Attorney General William Barr had said earlier this month that jurisdictions cannot take actions that appear to single out places of worship for restriction or punishment when other public gatherings are not.
“In this instance, I am concerned that by fining Calvary Baptist Church for ‘unsafe structures’ under a building permit violation, Baltimore County appears to be singling out Calvary Baptist Church,” the letter said.
Harris told local media at the press conference that his office has not received a response from Olszewski’s office since he sent the letter. He added that he believes most of the public views discrimination against places of worship is “un-American.”
On May 29, Baltimore County joined Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration in entering Phase 1 of the Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery, the plan to reopen the state that is being conducted in phases. Under Phase 1, churches were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity.
Olszewski announced that Baltimore County would enter Phase 1 of the state’s reopening planned during a press conference on May 28. Shiflett said the fine was issued to his church two hours before that press conference.
“Make no mistake, our church was targeted,” Shiflett said. “Our church was specifically pointed out, and it’s very obvious because the fine was from the Department of Inspections, which is outside their purview what we did. They never came and inspected our church.”
“Our church was rendered and fined for unsafe structures when we had services on May 24, but on May 30 when we had services, the building now is magically safe. It was an offense to our people.”
A virtual administrative law hearing was held on June 16. Judge Lawrence M. Stahl did not hand down a decision pertaining to the fine at the hearing. The date of that decision is to be determined.